Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“Doc” (1971)

Yet another western about Doc Holliday, this one is both really good and really awful. Smack in the middle of early 1970s revisionism, it celebrates the famous friendship between Holliday and Wyatt Earp and then trashes it.

The amazing production design is way ahead of the script in its all-out effort to be true to history. You could believe at times you’re watching Deadwood, the sets, costumes, and the lighting look so authentic. The use of background music is nicely minimal, and the Mexican musicians playing in the saloon give Tombstone the feel of a real border town.

Plot. The script itself makes enough passing references to actual people and events to suggest an underlying familiarity with them. But the screenwriter slices and dices what’s known into a curious mix that’s plausible only for anyone who doesn’t give a hoot about history. [Bill Crider correctly notes that "Doc" was the work of writer Pete Hamill, who was a well respected journalist and novelist, about whom more can be learned here.]

Holliday (Stacy Keach) is on his last legs and - given violent coughing fits -  knows it. He and Kate Elder (Faye Dunaway) team up after he wins her from Ike Clanton in a card game. Crossing a desperate stretch of desert, the pair go separate ways once they get to Tombstone. He's there to meet up with old friend Wyatt Earp. She quickly finds work as a prostitute and wows the saloon crowd.

The movie shifts gears abruptly as Doc rents a house and decides to make an honest woman of her. Their scenes together are warmly lighted with the glow of Hollywood romance. Dunaway is her stunning self and doesn’t miss a beat. Big Nose Kate Elder would surely have been pleased and proud by her portrayal in the film - if not a little puzzled by the Better Homes and Gardens domestic side of her that love ignites.

Doc Holliday, before 1881
In the script’s defense, it should be said that it clarifies the medical background that provides Holliday with the title “Doc.” He was trained as a dentist, as he explains to Kate, and with a grin and a wink, the screenwriter has her ask his opinion of a gold tooth in her mouth.

And fair enough, they portray Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) as less than the admirable lawman of legend. He walks and talks tough as a law-and-order man, but he’s got plans to make a fortune in Tombstone. He intends to partner with his old friend Holliday by granting him free rein as a gambler. With his skill and his reputation, he will draw business like flies to a picnic.

Only Sheriff Behan in town is an obstacle, and Wyatt intends to put him out of office and take the job himself in the next election. In his efforts to this end, he enlists the help of the Clanton gang, who first beat the crap out of him and eventually back out of a crooked deal Earp masterminds. Their falling out leads to the gunfight at the OK Corral, in which the entire gang and Morgan Earp are shot dead.

Less than sanguine about turns of events, Holliday leaves Kate without a word, for a visit to Tombstone’s opium den. Unhappy with what has become of his friendship with Wyatt, he joins in the gunfight anyway. But after killing the youngest Clanton, he gets on his horse and rides out of town. At the movie’s end, he is the sole lonely hero of a corrupt world. It’s an ending much in keeping with the downbeat mood of Hollywood during the Nixon years. 

OK Corral, Tombstone, 1882

Wrapping up. If you don’t care about the history this film is based on, it actually holds together pretty well. Shot in Spain, it looks more like Arizona than Arizona. The silent opening sequence as a lone rider crosses a rocky landscape at night sets a nicely ominous mood. No big Hollywood orchestra hammering out a grand opening theme, like the westerns of the 1950s.

Yulin gives a believable performance as a crafty, intelligent man using a marshal’s badge and a gun barrel to serve his own mercenary interests. With his dead man’s stare in many scenes, he can be almost creepy. (For some reason, he's given prominence on the pretty amateurish DVD cover.) Keach also delivers as a consumptive gunman trying not successfully to redeem himself before dying. Dunaway, as I said, is stunning.

Frank Perry, the film’s director, is remembered mostly for literate projects (Play It As It Lays and Diary of a Mad Housewife), though he would direct Dunaway again in Mommie Dearest. My favorite of his films is a modern-day western, Rancho Deluxe (1975), with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston and a script by Thomas McGuane. Definitely worth catching that one if you ever get the chance.

“Doc” is currently available at amazon.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Crime in early western fiction


  1. The script was by Pete Hammil. It was published in paperback, and I have a copy of it around here somewhere.

  2. Faye Dunaway was sure a hotty eh? I haven't seen this one but would probably watch it. I like old Doc.

  3. By the way, "Killing Trail's" number went up after your review so you definitely sent some business my way. Much appreciated.

  4. Bill, thanks for the heads-up on Hamill. Besides his Hollywood credits, he has a respectable career as a writer, and I didn't connect the two.

    Charles, all of Doc's film portrayals make of him a surprisingly mythic character. Pleased about the numbers.

  5. I am so surprised I have never seen this one. WOW.

  6. I'm not sure I've seen Yulin as a relatively young man much...and they could've done better with that cover, indeed. I wonder how much Hammil's script was fiddled with.